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2.1: Grave Stories

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  • (Re)Burial as Chronotope and Heterotopia in Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, Tahar Djaout’s Les Chercheurs d’os and Assia Djebar’s Algerian White.

    Esther Peeren

    ‘Once in the grave, the deceased has no more story’ (Segal 1993: 224)

    Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope challenges both narrative models centred on temporality and proponents of the ‘spatial turn’ by insisting that time and space be considered in their interdependency. For Bakhtin, it is the intersection of a specific temporal organisation with a particular spatial configuration that functions as a generative principle in narrative texts on two levels: major or generic chronotopes drive literary history by producing various genres, while minor chronotopes or chronotopic motifs yield plot elements within literary works. With regard to space, this means that rather than constituting a mere background or being ‘lived’ by the way a literary text’s narrator(s) or characters experience it, it is seen, in concert with time, to give life to the inhabitants of the fictional world, determining – before and in excess of any experience they may have of this world – who they are and what they can and cannot do. The characters, in other words, are not in space and in time as though these categories can be abstracted from their socio-ideological construction, but of the particular time-space that encompasses them.

    Notably, despite arguing that ‘in the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole,’ Bakhtin’s essay on the chronotope prioritises time over space, as is clear from its tautological title – ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope’ – and the remark that time is ‘the dominant principle in the chronotope’ (1996: 84, 86). This privileging of time, though, is more a matter of convention – grounded in Lessing’s famous association of narrativity with temporality in the Laocoön, which Bakhtin cites approvingly (1996: 251) – than a necessary aspect of the chronotope. While specific chronotopes may be dominantly temporal or spatial, neither dimension is in itself primary or can do without the other: instead of time generating space or vice versa, it is their convergence that produces particular narratives and, in the sociocultural realm, forms of life.

    Whereas the chronotope appears to place time before space, Michel Foucault’s heterotopia – describing ‘places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable’ – is often regarded as speaking exclusively to spatiality (1998: 178). However, a closer look reveals that this concept possesses a pronounced temporal dimension: ‘more often than not, heterotopias are connected with temporal discontinuities (découpages du temps); that is, they open onto what might be called, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronias’ (Foucault 1998: 182). From a Bakhtinian perspective, the question arises whether these two categories can in fact be so neatly distinguished or whether it would be more accurate to speak of heterochronotopias, as time only becomes perceptible in space and spatial relations cannot be experienced outside some form of temporalisation.

    In this regard, it is significant that Foucault struggles to designate the precise relationship between heterotopia and heterochronia: he begins, in the passage cited above, by arguing that the first ‘opens onto’ the latter, but then writes that ‘the heterotopia begins to function fully when men are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time’ (1998: 182). This placing of heterochronia before heterotopia, as its condition of fruition, is repeated in the description of the cemetery as ‘indeed a highly heterotopian place, seeing that the cemetery begins with that strange heterochronia that loss of life constitutes for an individual’ (1998: 182, my emphasis). Foucault’s attempt to order – in time or space – what are in effect structuring components of the same phenomenon is ultimately futile, as is shown by his subsequent lapse from speaking of ‘heterotopias and heterochronias’ as separate entities to distinguishing ‘eternitary’ (museums and libraries) and ‘chronic’ (festivals and vacation villages) heterotopias where the temporal dimension is an inherent aspect of the designated place (1998: 182). The fact that all the heterotopias mentioned by Foucault – as well as the utopia and the societal shift he traces from the temporally dominant nineteenth-century order of chronology, history and spatial hierarchy to the new, spatial arrangement of simultaneity and localisation – could be analysed as what Bakhtin calls ‘the actual chronotopes of our world’ (1996: 253), leads me to suggest that heterotopias – as heterochronotopias – are always also, structurally, chronotopes, but ones assigned a specific ideological function. In relation to the larger, generic chronotope of a particular culturally and historically specific society, they may be seen as chronotopic motifs working to ‘suspend, neutralize, or reverse the set of relations that are designated, reflected, or represented (réflechis) by them’ (Foucault 1998: 178).

    To explore the consequences of this idea, and to further substantiate Bakhtin’s point that space and time cannot be thought separately, I take the grave – comprising burial or entombment sites for the dead, as well as the associated, ritualised processes of their construction, committal and maintenance – as a case study. In life and literature, the grave generates particular stories and is assigned vital cultural and ideological functions. Far from being exclusively spatial, moreover, it is linked, like the cemetery (which is essentially an organized arrangement of graves), to the temporal discontinuity of ‘loss of life’ and the ‘quasi eternity in which (the deceased) perpetually dissolves and fades away’ (Foucault 1998: 182). After examining, in general terms, the grave’s structure as chronotope and potential heterochronotopia, I briefly look at four specific grave stories: Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, Tahar Djaout’s Les Chercheurs d’os and Assia Djebar’s Algerian White. Bringing together classical and contemporary texts that depict the place of burial as a site of contention highlights not only the historical and cultural specificity of the grave as chronotope and heterochronotopia, but also its evaluative dimension – its association with (sometimes contradictory) emotions and socio-ideological norms. The contended burial sites in Sophocles’ plays are seen to stage the tension inhabiting the chronotope of the grave as simultaneously a site of closure in relation to biographical time and one of openness towards religious, historical and/or personal memorial afterlives that are not always compatible. In the contemporary novels of Djaout and Djebar, this tension forms the basis for a trenchant critique of the way reburial is used in post-Independence Algeria to turn the chronotope of the grave into a compensatory heterotopia that works, ideologically, to arrest time, unify meaning and privilege the deceased’s reified afterlife in national history over its more dynamic persistence in personal and communal memory. Looking at these texts through the lens of the chronotope and heterotopia not only elucidates the relationship between these two concepts, but enables a systematic comparative analysis of the functions the grave takes on in the narratives.

    The Grave as Chronotope and Heterochronotopia

    Of what type of time and space is the grave as chronotope constituted? In temporal terms, I argue that it participates in what Bakhtin calls ‘the historicity of castle time,’ which, in some literary works, bears ‘a somewhat antiquated, museum-like character,’ but can also (as in the oeuvre of Sir Walter Scott) be animated by emphasizing how the past lives on in the castle’s architecture, furnishings and present inhabitants (1996: 246). Thus, while it may treat the past as a closed chapter, this historicity may also actively recall and mediate the past in the present. In graveyards, this happens, for example, by the way the names of living community members echo those inscribed on the headstones. 

    In addition, the grave is entangled with biographical time, the individual life course of which it signifies the ending. It does not, however, necessarily remove the deceased from all temporality or narrative potential, as it may launch him or her into a literal (spiritual/religious) and/or metaphorical afterlife (the inscription of the dead in personal memory and/or history) [1]. Robert Pogue Harrison, in The Dominion of the Dead, calls that which is liberated upon the proper disposal of the physical remains ‘the afterlife of the image’ (2003: 142). The dead live on as images to be utilized by the living. This survival requires a ritual detachment from the corpse as ‘the connatural image, or afterimage, of the person who has vanished’ which ‘embodies or holds on to the person’s image at the moment of demise’ (Harrison 2003: 148). At the same time, it may remain tethered to the grave as the designated space-time of commemoration/conjuration: at specific intervals, individuals, communities or nations pay tribute to the dead – and revive their image – by attending (to) their resting place. The chronotope of the grave, then, is characterized by a transitional temporality that, at the moment of burial, closes off biographical time to open onto a potentially complex, multiple survival in the cultural imagination, which can be divided into religious/spiritual time (for example, a form of eternity), historical time (which may musealise or re-animate) and personal memory [2].

    In terms of their spatial organization, graves presuppose, possibly universally, a location in a familiar place: one ought to be buried where one is from or somewhere one knew and loved rather than in a foreign land or at sea. Conventions of where exactly graves should be placed within familiar space vary historically and culturally, yet some distinction between ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ places of burial is usually maintained. The location of the grave is, if not necessarily public, at least accessible to the descendants of its occupant, the ability to return to the site being central to its commemorative function. Graves also tend to be fundamentally hierarchical spaces: distinctions of class, gender, race, and religion determine where a person’s grave will be, what it will look like, and whether or not it will be marked. Finally, the grave is a sacred space, not only because it commonly marks the deceased’s religious affiliation, but because it is a space not to be disturbed. Any encroachment is considered a desecration, as the space of the grave is supposed to be non-interchangeable, stable and exclusive (only family members should be buried together and mass graves are an abomination).

    On the basis of the above, the chronotope of the grave is characterized by a transition from biographical time to religious, historical and/or personal memorial time occurring in a familiar, proper, accessible, hierarchical, sacred, non-interchangeable, stable and exclusive space. Far from terminating a character’s narrative potential, it facilitates further stories of the dead, both as dead (in whatever afterlives the cultural framework foresees) and as living on as their image becomes available to the living. There are some stories, however, the chronotope of the grave has difficulty accommodating: non-burial, for example, is problematic because it prevents the transition from taking place and forecloses mourning and commemoration, while reburial multiplies the supposedly unique moment of transition and challenges the sanctity and non-interchangeability of the gravesite. Only when the imperative to leave the dead in peace is trumped by the need to bury them in a more familiar, proper or accessible place in order to (re)inscribe them into history or memory more effectively is reburial sanctioned within the evaluative framework of the grave chronotope. The stories I analyze below all involve infringements of the grave’s usual temporal and spatial determinations in their particular cultural setting. These infringements, through the strong emotions they incite, only serve to reinforce the normative (and relatively stable) nature of the grave chronotope’s narratological and social function in determining what stories the dead should (and should not) partake in.

    Before turning to the literary texts, the grave’s ideological function as heterochronotopia needs to be specified. Significantly, the cemetery is used by Foucault to illustrate how the same heterotopia can operate in various ways, in different cultures or periods. He charts the development, in Western-European culture, from the sacred, centrally located cemetery as a site of Christian resurrection to the secularised cemetery with its individualised graves that was considered a site of disease and removed to the outskirts, where it paradoxically gave rise to a ‘cult of the dead’ (1998: 181). While Foucault does not specify the function of the cemetery heterotopia, I suggest it is a heterochronotopia of compensation, which aims ‘to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill-constructed and jumbled’ (1998: 184). The modern cemetery and grave, in particular, are places where the dead are actually decomposing, but where this decay is disavowed through distance and compensated for by the solid presence of gravestones that keep the dead in their proper, separate place and, in their orderly, hierarchical arrangement, counteract the chaos of everyday life.

    As Jacques Derrida insists in Specters of Marx, keeping the dead in place is essential to facilitate mourning in the Freudian sense of a finite process in which affective ties to the deceased are gradually severed to make room for a new love object: ‘Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt: one has to know who is buried where – and it is necessary (to know – to make certain) that, in what remains of him, he remained there. Let him stay there and move no more!’ (1994: 9). In order to successfully complete the mourning process, it needs to be confirmed that ‘the beloved object no longer exists’ (Freud 2005: 204). Graves provide this confirmation by confining the remains to a particular, static place and precisely dating their demise. As heterochronotopia of compensation, this final resting place is supposed to remain impervious to the flow of time. Much like the museum heterotopia described by Foucault, it is associated with ‘the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself out of time and inaccessible to its ravages’ (1998: 26) [3].

    My reading of the grave as chronotope associated it with the historicity of castle time, which entails a ‘danger of excessive antiquarianism’ but may also emphasize the way the past continues to affect the present (Bakhtin 1981: 246). When the grave chronotope acquires the ideological function of heterochronotopia of compensation, however, the ‘museum-like character’ of the grave as a site of closure and disappearance is heightened, crowding out its relation to the open-ended temporalities of living on (Bakhtin 1981: 246). In the context of the grave as heterochronotopia of compensation, non-burial and reburial disturb, I will show below, because they prevent the enclosure of the past in the past and reveal the sense of order associated with the grave to be illusionary, artificial and temporary.

    Uncertain Graves in Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus

    Sophocles’ Antigone, perhaps the best-known western narrative of non-burial, illustrates the need for the grave, as chronotope, to signify the end of biographical time and transition to other temporalities. For the ancient Greeks, burial confirmed the deceased’s transferral to a separate realm: ‘Hades (from Aides, “the Invisible”) was the place where the shadow images of the dead lived on. Released from the body at death – either through the breath or through an open wound of the body – the psyche of the person became, precisely, an eidôlon, or image’ (Harrison 2003: 148). At the same time, burial marked the beginning of the process in which, Charles Segal argues, the deceased was held up as ‘an exemplar of cultural values among the living’ (2003: 215). In Antigone, Creon’s refusal to inter his disloyal nephew Polynices, who waged war on Thebes, is explicitly presented as a prohibition on lamentation and withholding of honour that prevents Polynices from being commemorated and entering Hades. The anomaly of his ‘unhappy corpse’ being left ‘unwept for, unburied, a rich treasure house for birds as they look out for food’ incites his sister Antigone, in the name of familial duty and divine natural law, to try to bury him (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 7). As the seer Tiresias reveals, the non-burial has indeed angered the gods and disrupted the natural order: ‘the gods are no longer accepting the prayers that accompany sacrifice or the flame that consumes the thigh bones, and the cries screamed out by the birds no longer give me signs (...) for they have eaten fat compounded with a dead man’s blood’ (1998: 97).

    Far from remaining absent, Polynices’ grave is central to the play, staged as a drawn-out sequence of construction/deconstruction/reconstruction: first, he is given a shallow scattering of dust by Antigone – ‘the body is buried and yet not buried’ (Jacobs 1996: 901) – only to have this earth removed by Creon’s men. After a second, unsuccessful attempt by Antigone to bury him, Creon eventually allows Polynices’ remains to be disposed of according to the reigning customs: ‘we washed (the corpse” with purifying water, and among newly uprooted bushes burned what was left. And we heaped up a tall burial mound of our own earth’ (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 113) [4]. The transition from the realm of the living to that of the dead – and the accompanying shift into an ‘idealized representation’ in cultural memory (Segal 1993: 215) – is forestalled as Polynices’ burial is stretched out in time and situated on ground that is, as a result of Creon’s proclamation, rendered insecure, improper, inaccessible and profane. While the entombment of Eteocles, the brother who defended Thebes, exemplifies the normative chronotope of the grave in this particular historical context – ‘in accordance with justice and with custom he has hidden beneath the earth, honoured among the dead below’ (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 7) – Polynices’ fate perverts the grave’s temporal and spatial determinations and turns it into a site of profound conflict.

    This conflict derives, in part, from the challenge Creon’s prohibition poses to the grave’s potential function as heterochronotopia of compensation. That the grave, in classical Greece, took on this role is suggested by the way the realm of Hades, onto which it opens, is seen to ‘socialise and civilise death (...) by turning it into an “ideal type” of life’ (Vernant, quoted in Segal 1993: 215). However, in Antigone the perfect, meticulous and wellarranged space the heterochronotopia of compensation should oppose to the chaotic everyday world is muddled by the way Creon ‘kept here something belonging to the gods below’ (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 103). Its lengthy postponement marks Polynices’ grave, even after it has been constructed, as a disorderly time-space not ‘utterly different from all the emplacements they reflect or refer to,’ but resembling them (Foucault 1998: 178). The same goes for the tomb in which Creon secures Antigone. His blasphemous move of ‘having hurled below one of those above’ blurs the spatial divide between the living and the dead, which is not supposed to be subject to human rule (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 101-102). From a Foucauldian perspective, Creon negates the distance and separation essential for a chronotope to function as heterochronotopia of compensation. If the dead can remain unburied while the living are entombed, neither the grave nor Hades can provide reparation for the troubles of Thebes.

    In Antigone, the grave, rendered multiple and heterogeneous in Derrida’s sense of being ‘more than one/no more one (le plus d’un)’ (1994: xx), defies order and delays commemoration. A similar disruption of the grave as a chronotope supposed to signal an unequivocal transition from life to other temporalities and to provide the mourner with a means of ‘identifying the bodily remains and (...) localizing the dead’ can be discerned in Oedipus at Colonus (Derrida 1994: 9). There, the moment of burial is not extended through deferral but through being pulled forward into Oedipus’ life, who, old, blind and exiled, pleads with the Eumenides – the goddesses whose ‘sacred’ place, Colonus, he has entered – to ‘grant me a passage and a conclusion of my life’ (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 419, 425). The way he already refers to himself as eidôlon or ‘ghost’ preposterously marks him as one of the dead (1998: 425). Since it has been prophesied that Oedipus’ tomb will offer protection to those near it, the tragedy revolves around the location of his interment. Oedipus, in accordance with the grave chronotope’s normative spatial determinations, wants to be buried on familiar ground, at home in Thebes, but the Thebans will only condone his presence, as ‘a parricide and a man impure,’ outside their borders (1998: 521). Angered by this exclusion, Oedipus asks Theseus, ruler of Athens, to protect him and allow him to be buried at Colonus, where, in the event of a future attack by the Thebans, it shall cause their defeat: ‘Then shall my dead body, sleeping and buried, cold as it is, drink their warm blood’ (1998: 487).

    The grave, therefore, functions less to mark the end of Oedipus’ biographical time (which seems to have run out already) or to facilitate his transition to Hades than as a place from which his body will continue to act as part of human history rather than just an afterimage to be manipulated by the living. In essence, the play charts Oedipus’ inscription into historical time through the chronotope of the grave, but with the burial site marking this inscription before death has even occurred. Harrison associates Oedipus’ grave with a foundational act: ‘Athens needed the presence of Oedipus’s grave in its vicinity to assure its founding and good fortune into the future (...) we may perceive in its myth a poetic character of the founding power of the hero’s grave’ (1998: 23-24). Since Athens has already been founded, it is more accurate to say that Oedipus’ grave consolidates it, confirming the Athenians’ collective cultural identity.

    But of what precisely does Oedipus’ grave consist? When Zeus’ thunder tells Oedipus that ‘the end of life that was prophesied has come upon this man,’ he tells Theseus he will lead him to the place where he must die to locate ‘the sacred tomb where it is fated for this man to be hidden in this earth’ (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 569, 575). There, ‘the things that are taboo and that speech must not disturb’ will be revealed to Theseus and become his to guard, with their location only to be revealed to his successor (1998: 573). What will be found and what exactly will offer protection (the sacred tomb, Oedipus’ remains, the mysterious ‘things’) remains ambiguous. Moreover, the moment of identification/localisation never arrives as Oedipus’ death, recounted by a messenger, evades knowledge and perception: ‘when we had departed, after a short time we turned around and could see that the man was no longer there, and the king was holding his hand before his face to shade his eyes, as though some terrifying sight, which he could not bear to look on, had been presented’ (1998: 583). Oedipus’ demise is miraculous and mysterious, and while Theseus refers to ‘the sacred tomb that holds him,’ Ismene suggests that ‘he descended with no burial, apart from all!’ (1998: 597, 593). Thus, the grave appears, in Andreas Markantonatos’ words, only as a ‘narrative gap,’ a site of uncertainty, confusion, and deferment (2007: 115).

    Oedipus’ enigmatic fate disrupts the normative chronotope of the grave: he dies on alien land unattended by and inaccessible to next of kin, while the rituals supposed to facilitate his transition to Hades are curtailed and conducted before his death [5]. Personal mourning and memory are invoked when Oedipus takes leave of his daughters and they lament his impending death together, but cannot fully be indulged as the site of localisation/identification remains foreclosed; when Antigone asks to ‘see the home beneath the earth’ where her father rests, Theseus tells her it is not permitted (Lloyd-Jones 1998: 591). Moreover, Oedipus commends himself not only to the memory of his daughters but also, more emphatically, to that of Theseus: ‘Come, dearest of strangers, may you have good fortune, yourself and this land and your attendants, and in prosperity remember me when I am dead for your success forever!’ (1998: 575). This confident statement invokes Pierre Nora’s description of ‘an integrated, dictatorial memory – unself-conscious, commanding, all-powerful, spontaneously actualizing, a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition, linking the history of its ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth’ (1989: 8). The way the logic of the play requires Antigone to relinquish her wish to see the grave signals that memory here is not individualised but social, collective and ultimately non-separable from history as not yet historiographical but still a ‘tradition of memory’ (Nora 1989: 11).

    In chronotopical terms, the secret grave can never conclusively mark the terminus of biographical time and, as such, hinders personal-familial commemoration. It is, however, effective in inscribing Oedipus into historical-memorial time, as knowledge of the site of his death is bound to the Athenian succession. Oedipus’ resting place becomes a historical force – not just a force in history or something locked in the past, but a force of history capable of influencing the outcome of future events. In this elaboration of the grave chronotope, then, its participation in historical time (here intimately connected to the divine temporality of prophecy and to collective memory) is made primary.

    As in Antigone, the grave’s potential function as heterochronotopia of compensation is complicated. On the one hand, the distant location of the gravesite renders it utterly ‘other,’ while prophesy assigns it an explicit compensatory function (the grave will reward Theseus for helping Oedipus). On the other hand, it is questionable whether a grave of which the reality cannot be affirmed, which is not ‘actually localisable’ except by Theseus (and even he seems unable to bear its sight), and which does not remain separate from but is thoroughly embroiled with messy politics (of which it becomes the stake) can provide the sense of order and comfort the compensatory heterochronotopia presupposes (Foucault 1998: 178).

    Reburial in Djaout’s Les chercheurs d’os and Djebar’s Algerian White

    While Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus stage the tensions between the different temporalities the grave chronotope can open onto and reveal its precarity as a site of order, Djaout and Djebar underscore the potency, in the emerging nationalist context of postIndependence Algeria, of the ideological impetus for graves to close off signification and take on the role of heterochronotopia of compensation. In their novels of reburial, graves are voided as markers of the terminus of biographical time and the commencement of personal commemoration as the impulse to enshrine the deceased as national heroes is made paramount, in a much less ambiguous manner than in Oedipus at Colonus, where the cultural context does not sanction a complete separation of divine, historical and personal temporalities. In terms of the grave as chronotope, the enshrinement of the dead in Djaout’s and Djebar’s novels is effected by combining an antiquating form of historicity with a spatiality that emphasizes localisation over-identification. The ideological aim is to make the grave guarantee a fixed, partisan account of history that ousts memory as ‘a perpetually actual phenomenon,’ lacks ambiguity and thus compensates for the instability of the new nation and the ambiguities of the struggle for independence (Nora 1989: 8).

    These graves, then, constitute lieux de mémoire emerging from history’s besiegement of memory; they are ‘moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned, no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded’ (Nora 1989: 12). Nora specifically lists cemeteries, graves and funerals as lieux de mémoire, which are themselves grave-like in that their main purpose is ‘to stop time, to block the work of forgetting, to establish a state of things, to immortalize death, to materialize the immaterial’ (1989: 19).

    As lieux de mémoire, graves convey not merely a blessing of the land – as Oedipus’ tomb does – but a way to ‘take possession of a place and secure it as one’s own’ (Harrison 2003: 24). To achieve this, the grave is marked as excessively as possible and placed in a central location that is not merely considered appropriate but seen as the only suitable place. This central location is, moreover, explicitly cordoned off from the larger social sphere and serves to provide it with a perfect mirror image. Leaving the venerated dead elsewhere, especially where they remain invisible, is coded as sacrilegious and legitimates the otherwise profane displacement of the dead. Far from signifying a living on, then, the politically motivated reburials in these novels inaugurate a second, immobilizing death that illustrates the heterochronotopia of compensation’s tendency to subordinate individual interests and evaluations to a collective need for (a semblance of) order.

    Djaout’s novel, published in 1984 and set in early 1960s Algeria, is mostly told from the perspective of an unnamed 14-year-old boy from a Berber village, who departs on a journey with an elderly relative to recover the body of his brother, a resistance fighter killed in the struggle against the French colonial forces. Their mission is part of a nationalist political movement that has sent convoys of so-called chercheurs d’os (‘bone seekers’) across the country [6]. The post-independence government has elevated all fallen resistance fighters to national heroes and retrieving their bones and giving them une sépulture digne de citoyens souverains (‘a dignified sepulchre as sovereign citizens’) is presented as the proper way of honouring them (Djaout 1984: 10). The novel, however, reveals less noble motives underlying the official rhetoric: the living want to alleviate their guilt for surviving the war and enjoying the freedom independence has brought them, and the skeletons of the fallen must be recovered to provide material proof of their entitlement to financial compensation. For the boy, therefore, bringing the bones back and burying them in the newly created war cemetery, which occupies la parcelle la mieux située du village (‘the best-situated plot in the village’), is less about honouring the dead than about preying on them like vultures (Djaout 1984: 13).

    The aim of the reburials is not the living on of the dead, but their permanent immobilization in staid, antiquated historicity. While the secrecy and enigma surrounding Oedipus’ grave is what guarantees its continued power to act in the present to take history forward, here the very centrality and conspicuousness of the graves serves to consign them to the past and remove them from the flow of time. What the bone seekers bring back to their villages are docile bodies whose wanderings are brought to a definitive halt by burying them not according to the traditional village rituals but in service of the ideological aims of the post-independence regime. From the boy’s perspective, the reburials seek to inter the bones even deeper and more thoroughly than they already were in order to make sure the dead will remain dead and cannot return to demand their share of the spoils or contest the (largely made up) stories the living tell about their part in the war.

    Thus, the reburials serve to keep the dead in their place. However, the identification Derrida considers a precondition for achieving this is absent. Because in their function as guarantors of the new nation the dead need not be individualised, it does not really matter whose bones end up in the war cemetery: localisation trumps identification. When the boy and his relative arrive at the place where his brother died, an old man helps them dig up several makeshift graves: the first holds a skeleton with a gold tooth, which cannot be the brother, while the second reveals a dead animal. The third contains bones that are taken home as the brother’s, even though there is no positive proof of identity. In the end, this is irrelevant as the brother’s remains only serve to signify war heroism and are not sought to facilitate personal mourning.

    As they dig, the bones are described as ubiquiste (‘ubiquitous’) and farceur (‘mischievous’), while the uncovered skull appears to taunt them with a smile (1984: 144, 140). As long as the bones are not yet appropriated, they possess an ambivalent, uncanny agency that affects those personally tied to them: during the journey, the boy is haunted by memories of his brother and, as the bones are revealed, he experiences an angoisse insondable (‘unfathomable anguish’) (1984: 145). However, as soon as the bones have been gathered together in a sack, they are captif (‘captive’) and thus secure, safe (148). This is the first step towards getting rid of them (and all the associated memories and feelings) once and for all through reburial [7]. On the journey back to the village, the bones are said to sound like pièces de monnaie (‘coins’) (147) as they bounce around in a sack on the donkey’s back. The transformation of human remains into currency aptly conveys their impending part in the heterochronotopia of compensation (which, as indicated, here has an explicit monetary dimension) constituted by the war cemetery [8].

    The second burial, which places the brother là où même le souvenir ne pourra plus les retrouver (‘there where even memory can no longer retrieve them’), prevents him from living on in personal memory and encases him in the singular, mortifying historical signification of the mythical collective death that inaugurated the Algerian nation (1984: 149). He can be commemorated, but not mourned as an individual member of a family and community. Judith Butler’s Precarious Life discerns a ‘hierarchy of grief’ that assigns different degrees of grievability to subjects depending on the degree of humanity they are assigned in a particular society (2006: 34). In Djaout’s novel, what is at stake is not a hierarchy of who can be grieved, but a hierarchy of forms of grief in relation to the same corpse. The bones in Djaout’s novel are eminently grievable, but only as part of the nationalist narrative: the grave’s chronotopic signification of a dynamic, potentially tension-filled transition from biographical time to memorial and historical time is perverted into a static, singular inscription into a rigidifying historicity, where graves become interchangeable and signify only collectively, in number. Although their new graves ne pouvait échapper au regard d’aucun voyageur (‘cannot escape the look of any traveller’), the corpses in Djaout’s novel end up, in a sense, deader than dead; their solidification in the form of clean, unidentifiable bones robs them of precisely the precarious bonds with and vulnerability to others that Butler delineates as the possible basis for a common, more ethical humanity. The political drive towards musealisation, in accordance with Nora’s notion that ‘history is perpetually suspicious of memory and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it,’ assigns the gravesites their collective compensatory function (in multiple senses) at the price of personal relationships (1989: 9). As such, it saps the life out of the dead and the living; approaching the village with the bones, Djaout’s boy-narrator records how l’âne, constant dans ses efforts et ses braiments, est peut-être le seul être vivant que notre convoi ramène (‘the donkey, constant in its efforts and its braying, is perhaps the only living being our convoy is bringing back’) (1984: 155).

    Assia Djebar’s Algerian White, originally published in 1995 as Le blanc de l’Algérie, also deals with the politicization of death in Algeria, focusing on the War of Independence and the violence of the early 1990s, when radical Islamists killed a number of journalists, writers, and intellectuals, among them Djaout, who was assassinated in 1993. Djebar recounts the final days and moments of the dead, emphasizing both the political and historical links between their stories and each story’s specificity. The book is a record of her attempt to mourn the dead differently, at both an individual and a collective level, not through Freudian labour of detachment and substitution, but as a continuing, evolving relationality conceptualised, as in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, as a form of haunting:

    Sometimes they come and sit above my bed in a circle, like saints in naive pictures, no halo around their heads – sometimes solitary silhouettes, one rather than the other, whispering some memory or another, giving the once suspended or uncertain meaning back to it, sometimes in that conversation which is tangled and braided and palpitating – fringing my fore dawn exit from sleep – I no longer know who is speaking – of me or the person approaching; I no longer know who is the phantom – myself, in turn, beginning to float horizontally in the ether, ears gaping, eyelids hardly closed, and smile peaceful in the half-light – or the first among them, with his usual look, M’Hamed, if really it’s him I pick out from his stiffness, his bony brown face (...) I’m no longer sure whether this is happening as it did twenty years ago in his office (...) (1994: 19)

    Djebar’s friends re-appear as ghosts that are present but always unpredictably so: they exist (or not) on the fringe of sleep, their conversation is ‘tangled,’ ‘braided’ and ‘palpitating,’ and while Derrida is always able to distinguish himself from the spectre, Djebar radicalises his notion of living with the ghost in her inability to decide whether the phantom is she herself or one of her friends. Although she suspects her conversations are really ‘a monologue,’ thus acknowledging that the dead can ultimately only speak through the living, her narrative never completely brings her friends’ voices and stories under control (2003: 27). The memories their commemoration provokes in Djebar and others are alive, multiple and ambivalent so that no single account can sum them up and definitively consign them to the past [9].

    Like Djaout, Djebar stages the conflict between what Nora calls ‘true memory’ – ‘which has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body’s inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories’ – and ‘memory transformed by its passage through history,’ which is ‘experienced as a duty, no longer spontaneous’ (1989: 13). Algerian White points to the danger of ideological, historicising discourses instrumentalising the grave and crowding out personal mourning and memory. To counter this danger, Djebar asserts the wishes of the deceased and their family with respect to their burial and commemoration against the political-historical need to appropriate the dead in a monolithic way. Official funeral ceremonies, whether Islamic or nationalist, are critiqued for turning the grave into an ordered site directed at closure and exorcism, and designed to function as heterochronotopia of compensation. Instead, Djebar calls for improvisation, a varied practice of remembrance that comprises multiple languages, rituals and practices, and that allows the grave to mark the transition from biographical time to living on in both personal memory and political history, where these two forms are not seen as mutually exclusive. For Djebar, the deaths of her friends and all the others memorialised in the book are as incomplete as Algeria’s journey into independent nationhood: ‘I don’t believe in their deaths: for me, their deaths are works-in-progress’ (2003: 218). These deaths – written as ‘unfinished’ (2003: 219) – did indeed occur, as Djebar’s painstaking reconstructions emphasise, but they are never consigned to an irrevocably closed off past.

    Djebar imagines what I want to call undying deaths, as opposed to the redoubled, stultifying death Djaout sees the post-independence regime impose on the corpses it reburies as war heroes to guarantee (through their compensatory function) national identity. The spectral bodies that haunt Djebar’s account never truly die, because their lives and deaths continue to signify in multiple ways. Thus, what marks an undying death is not the absence of a grave but the acknowledgment, acceptance, and facilitation of the grave’s chronotopic function as a site of transition opening onto the unpredictable afterlife of the image, to recall Harrison’s term.

    In contrast, the politicised practice of reburial, as depicted by both Djaout and Djebar, can be seen as an attempt to stilt this afterlife made possible by the ritual separation of the image from the corpse. By once more uncovering the body and reinforcing its signification as the one true image of the deceased (its ‘real’ likeness), the image that was able to float relatively freely is imprisoned in the new grave. The second burial, in other words, enables those political actors who undertake the reburying to impose a singular meaning (selected from the multifaceted significations accumulated by the image in the cultural imagination) that then becomes the meaning of the corpse because the central location, excessive marking and obsessive commemoration of the new grave binds the image to the corpse rather than severing the bond between them. Reburial becomes a kind of unburial in undoing what Harrison considers the main task of inhumation [10]. We see this happening most clearly in Djaout’s novel, where the quest for the brother’s skeleton produces a flow of memories, a true interaction with the image that allows the boy to remember both his brother’s life and his own. This dynamic interface with the past breaks down, however, as soon as the bones are dug up and confined to the sack.

    Djebar, too, perceives politically motivated reburials as attempts to constrict the afterlives of the dead. Towards the end of Algerian White, she invokes the case of Algeria’s national hero emir Abdelkader el-Djazairi, who fought the French invasion in the 1830s and was originally buried in Damascus, in accordance with his wishes. In 1966, his body was brought back to Algiers at the initiative of the then government; Abdelkader was reburied in an imposing mausoleum in Martyr Square at the El-Alia cemetery. Djebar recounts how the authorities had to gain permission to move the body from Abdelkader’s grandson, who imposed one condition: the remains of his grandfather would be exchanged for the freedom of his son, imprisoned in Algeria for communist sympathies. According to Djebar, in agreeing to this, the grandson must have realised that returning the bones did not mean returning Abdelkader himself. A truly meaningful and complete return would only be possible if the Algerian nation learned to respect not just Abdelkader’s material remains – in accordance with archival memory’s reliance on ‘the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image’ (Nora 1989: 13) –, but also the afterlife of this image, consisting of his varied and indomitable intellectual and spiritual legacy.

    Both Djaout and Djebar suggest that political reburials concentrate on the materiality of the corpse and the spatial aspect of the grave in order to monopolise and monologise the deceased’s legacy and enclose it in the past. The secure possession of the dead as static objects kept in place and out of the flow of time is preferred over the numinous possession by the dead envisioned by Djebar. As Katherine Verdery suggests, it is the static materiality of the corpse, its indisputable thereness, which makes it so suitable a symbol for national unity. Corpses, like graves, appeal to a fantasy of fixing meaning outside time for all time. But this illusion of certainty is undermined by the corpse’s fragile, decomposing nature and the frequent impossibility (even in the age of DNA) of absolute identification: ‘among the most important properties of bodies, especially dead ones, is their ambiguity, multivocality, or polysemy’ (Verdery 2008: 306). This applies equally to graves, which rarely last forever and are likely to tell multiple stories.

    While Djaout and Djebar critique attempts to suppress the grave’s status as a transitional time-space that not only closes off but can also open onto various afterlives, Sophocles highlights this transitionality by rendering Oedipus’ resting place a supreme enigma and stretching out Polynices’ interment; in his plays, moreover, it could be said that the graves not only trigger the afterlife of the image, but themselves become part of it. In our time, Sandra M. Gilbert has discerned a ‘democratization of grief’ in the transition from static monuments to ‘transient’ and ‘makeshift’ memorials that ‘happen over time, as tokens of memory accrete and find appropriate places in a complex whole’ (2006: 282). Such practices, if applied to graves, would place more emphasis on its chronotopical association with a certain (literal or metaphorical) living on, could enable personal memory and historico-political commemoration to coexist more harmoniously, and would expose the grave’s ideological function as heterochronotopia of compensation, predicated on its semblance of order, as illusory.


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    1. Harrison writes that ‘the grave domesticates the inhuman transcendence of space and marks human time off from the timelessness of the gods and the eternal returns of nature’ (2003: 23). My chronotopical analysis bifurcates ‘human time’ into biographical time – which is indeed ‘mortalized’ (Harrison 2003: 23) – and historical/memorial time, which, because of its scope and duration, remains alive, open to change.

    2. The chronotopical association of the grave with a transitional time accords with anthropological perspectives that consider mortuary rituals in terms of rites of passage taking place in sacred or liminal time (Robben 2008: 10).

    3. It is no coincidence that many graveyards have come to be regarded and operated as museums, complete with gift shops, guided tours and maps. Père Lachaise in Paris is a prime example.

    4. On the critical discussion among classicists surrounding the repeated burial, see Griffith (2010: 376).

    5. Markantonatos notes how ‘according to Greek practice, the funerary preparations were preferably conducted by the next of kin’ and how, in Oedipus’ case, ‘in essence, the familiar three-act drama of the Greek funeral – that is, the laying out of the body, the funeral cortège and the interment – is replaced here by an exceptionally shortened prothesis of someone still alive’ (2007: 6, 137).

    6. All translations from Djaout are my own.

    7. Mustapha reads Les Chercheurs d’os as a tale of postcolonial haunting in which the present is unsuccessful in controlling the ghosts of the past, while Geesey posits that ‘as the bones are dug up and reburied deeper and deeper, the multiple perspectives and discourses on the war’s events proliferate’ (2007: 276). I argue that both haunting and the proliferation of meaning are confined to the stage of searching for the bones; as soon as they are found, and even more when they will be reburied, the bones are deprived of their ability to signify beyond the unitary heroic nationalist narrative.

    8. The idea that locating and identifying the dead renders them less troublesome motivates the opposition of the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to the exhumation, identification, and re-burial of their children, who disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1983). While others welcomed the sense of closure and opportunity to mourn these exhumations offered, the Mothers felt that ‘reburials destroy the living memory of the disappeared, and inter them in an enclosed remembrance’, so Robben (2008: 144).

    9. For a more elaborate account of Algerian White’s reconceptualisation of mourning and testimony, see Hiddleston (2005).

    10. The attempt to arrest the image is, of course, most explicit when the corpse is never buried, but preserved and put on display, as in the notorious cases of Lenin and Mao.

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